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Army Develops Robotic Supply Convoys to Save Soldiers

by Matt Cox on February 26, 2014

Robot ConvoyU.S. Army leaders hope to one day resupply troops with unmanned, ground convoys and pilotless, cargo-carrying drone aircraft.

The Pentagon is continuing to build on the experience it has gained with unmanned technology over in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. military forces have enjoyed success using small unmanned ground vehicles to search enemy caves and suspected enemy bombs. Large, armed drone aircraft have also proven effective at destroying high-value enemy leaders in remote areas.

Now, Army scientists are working to use this unmanned technology for large-scale, resupply operations.

The Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, and Lockheed Martin recently completed a successful demonstration that showed fully autonomous convoys operating in urban environments using multiple vehicles types.

The demonstration earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, was part of the Army and Marine Corps’ Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System program, or AMAS. It marked the completion of the program’s Capabilities Advancement Demonstration.

The test involved driverless M915 tactical trucks and the Palletized Loading System vehicles navigating hazards and obstacles such as road intersections, oncoming traffic, stalled and passing vehicles, pedestrians and traffic circles in both urban and rural test areas, according to a recent Lockheed Martin release.

“The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter,” said David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

The Unmanned Mission Module part of AMAS, which includes a high performance LIDAR sensor, a second GPS receiver and additional algorithms, is installed as a kit and can be used on virtually any military vehicle, Lockheed officials maintain.

Senior Army leaders representing the Army Materiel Command, the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), the Combined Arms Support Command and TARDEC witnessed the demonstration, according to Lockheed officials.

The AMAS CAD was jointly funded by ARCIC and Lockheed Martin. While the AMAS JCTD is aimed at augmenting the safety and security of human drivers in a convoy mission, the CAD was aimed at completely removing the soldier from the cab.

“It was very important that we had representation from the technology, acquisition and user bases, along with our industry partners, here at the CAD,” said TARDEC technical manager Bernard Theisen. “We are very pleased with the results of the demonstration, because it adds substantial weight to the Army’s determination to get robotic systems into the hands of the warfighter.”

But ground-based resupply is only part of the effort.

In Afghanistan, combat outposts require on average 100,000 pounds of material a week, and high elevation and impassable mountain roads often restrict access.

Helicopters are one solution, but the supply of available helicopters can’t meet the demand for their services, which cover diverse operational needs including resupply, tactical insertion and extraction, and casualty evacuation, according to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials.

As a potential solution, DARPA has been working on a prototype that would provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation for logistics, personnel transport and tactical support missions for small ground units.

DARPA’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System design, known as ARES, would rely on a vertical take-off and landing flight module, designed to operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of transporting a variety of payloads. The flight module would have its own power system, fuel, digital flight controls and remote command-and-control interfaces, DARPA officials said.

Twin tilting ducted fans would provide efficient hovering and landing capabilities in a compact configuration, with rapid conversion to high-speed cruise flight similar to small aircraft. The system could use landing zones half the size typically needed by similarly sized helicopters, enabling it to land in rugged terrain and aboard ships, officials said.

“Many missions require dedicated vertical take-off and landing assets, but most ground units don’t have their own helicopters,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager.

DARPA officials see the flight module traveling between its home base and field operations to deliver and retrieve several different types of detachable mission modules, each designed for a specific purpose such as cargo pickup and delivery, casualty extraction or airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The flight module would have a useful load capability of up to 3,000 pounds, more than 40 percent the takeoff gross weight of the aircraft.

Units could direct the flight modules using apps on their mobile phones or ruggedized tablets. Initially, the system would be unmanned, with a future path towards semi-autonomous flight systems and user interfaces for optionally manned/controlled flight.

ARES is currently in its third and final phase of development. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is the lead vehicle design and system integration performer for Phase 3 of the program.

“ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units,” Bagai said. “Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success.”

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